Playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker examines ‘Being Human’

Timberlake Wertenbaker

Timberlake Wertenbaker - Credit: Archant

A monologue about a bee trying to learn how to act human is part of a project to let families and flatmates perform their own pandemic dramas

If lockdown has deprived audiences of live storytelling, then one innovative project has allowed them to perform it themselves.

ImagiNation commissioned 19 short pieces by renowned writers reflecting on the pandemic.

Individuals, flatmates, families and youth theatres recorded themselves performing them - then uploaded their efforts, which will be edited and shared as a “digital anthology” of the nation.

Jointy run by Theatre 503 and Theatre Centre it includes contributions by Zinnie Harris, Roy Williams, and Stroud Green playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker.

The stage directions to Wertenbaker’s eco-themed monologue about a bee learning how to act human say it can be performed by any number or combination of people.

“I loved that the brief was to open it up as much as possible. So often you are limited by writing for gender, age or sex and this was a chance to get rid of all of that,” she says.

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“And why does it have to be a human being who always talks? If the virus moves from place to place why can’t language?”

Tutorial videos included vocal coaching, performance tips, and directorial insights on how to film it. Emma Rees Director of Theatre Centre said the “wonderful responses” would now be shared as a tapestry of diverse voices.

Wertenbaker, whose plays such as Our Country’s Good have been performed at the Royal Court and RSC, loved the idea of “community participation in theatre”.

In these strange times she says: “We have a chance to re-think what the purpose of theatre is, what it does and what its responsiblities are. There is always a danger with an art form that it becomes fixed, it works so let’s have more of the same. This project speaks to that.. how can we writers do something different? How can theatre be more of a dialogue? How can we put something on the street and not just download existing plays?”

Despite the appetite in lockdown for watching filmed productions, she adds “theatre is always in time, we have to keep it like that.”

Wertenbaker’s plays start from getting “a bee in your bonnet”.

In the case of ‘Being Human’ quite literally.

“If the lockdown has done anything, it’s made us more conscious of nature and whether it has anything to say to us, if we listen better we would understand more, you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to think this is a move on the part of the planet to get us to pay attention more, it’s the planet taking revenge, sayig ‘it’s you or me.’

“I am intereseted in bees, if they disappear we really are in trouble, nothing will get pollinated, that idea that humankind has just four years if bees disappear is not so far wrong.”

“We humans think we are so superior, but sometimes I think my cat is looking at me thinking ‘why is she behaving in such a stupid way?’”

Rees says themes of the 19 pieces range from environmental sustainability to identity and relationships with several referencing the NHS.

“There was such a range of stories about what we are seeing in other people’s behaviour and our own responsibilities,” she adds.

Post pandemic, Wertenbaker feels longer plays will emerge, but says writers must first absorb what has happened.

“It’s so quick, so new and scary. I haven’t been able think about writing a big play at the moment, I’m just taking it in. I’m in the middle of a re-write but have no idea if it will go on, in the long run, the future of theatre, is quite scary.”

Aside from fears for personal mortality she says civilisation has learned that humanity is mortal and an event can do for us “what the meteor did for the dinosaurs”.

“It’s awful to read the figures, we are almost immune to them. Hundreds of tragedies have gone into numbers and we don’t have time to mourn all those people we don’t know.

“It’s quite existential I don’t think we ever believed that our world might collapse and disappear.”

She’s doubtful that future audiences will want “verbatim plays about lockdown,” adding: “The job of a writer is to listen and hear what’s going on then extract the metaphor and find a way of telling the story.”

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